The government gave ‘VIP treatment’ to a company offering Covid testing facilities that entered the system ‘informally’ because Matt Hancock was a ‘good friend’ of someone who worked with the company, according to internal emails seen by the Guardian.
The Animal Health Trust (AHT) had a lab based in Newmarket, West Suffolk, then Secretary of Health, and much of its work focused on medical care for horses, including the horse racing industry with which Hancock has a close connection.
The emails between the officials of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs seem to contradict the denials of this ministry and the Cabinet Office of the existence of a VIP or “fast track” process for companies with political links in search of government contracts for Covid testing. Hancock resigned from the cabinet last month after being caught kissing his assistant.
In an April 23, 2020 email to health department officials working on the scaling up testing operation, an official wrote: “AHT came straight to SofS [secretary of state] office – someone who works with them is a good friend of his and so they entered the system informally this way… They must have gone through the vacuum of files if we don’t have a record of them – they have definitely been in contact with us and I got VIP treatment.
Apparently, addressing the lack of clear documents documenting discussions with AHT, the next morning a senior official wrote: “We absolutely have to capture them in the system somehow, so that they receive future communications and offers. Owner [sic] is a friend of SofS, the lab is in his riding / region – so he will get direct feedback on our processes! “
A response was sent to this email by Simon Greaves, a consultant who described his role for the health department as working “to lead VIP stakeholder engagement” alongside Lord Bethell, the minister brought in by Hancock who oversaw the award of the Covid contracts.
A government source told The Guardian last month that “VIP” in Greaves’ role description meant prominent figures in the testing industry, not people with political connections, as was the case with the “VIP / high priority route” that the government operated when awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE).
The recently revealed email from Greaves asked if AHT could be logged in as a VIP “based on the following” – the email from the official who said the “owner” of AHT was a friend of Hancock. “We have a stakeholder diary in which we capture relevant VIP stakeholders for the fifth pillar [building testing capacity]”Greaves wrote. “Can we capture an animal health group [sic] based on the following? “
Speaking to an NHS England staff member in the group, Greaves added: ‘We should also be talking about how to secure our Vip [sic] processes are aligned to minimize duplication.
Despite the VIP treatment, AHT does not appear to have secured a government testing contract. A royal chartered company and registered charity with around £ 700,000 in annual funding from horse racing, AHT was already in financial trouble in March 2020. In July of that year it went into liquidation.
The Department of Health’s denial last month that it had a VIP process for testing followed the emergence of an email in a legal challenge brought against the government by the Good Law Project. concerning three PPE contracts. Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office purchasing manager, wrote in this email that if offers to supply test kits came through a minister, officials should “put FASTTRACK at the start of the line. ‘object’.
However, a government spokesperson said: “There was no priority lane to test suppliers. All testing offers went through the same robust assurance checks and there was no separate “fast track”. “
Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said of the latest emails: “It’s so explicit: officials were giving special treatment to friends of the minister. The government has categorically denied the existence of a VIP process for testing, so what are we supposed to do with all the other denials issued by the government? “
Cabinet Office shadow minister Angela Rayner called for a “fully independent investigation” to find out if there was a VIP fast-track process for the Covid test and traceability operation, which had a budget of $ 37 billion of pounds sterling. “This is yet more proof that we cannot trust a word of what Tory ministers are saying,” Rayner said.
The health department, Hancock and Greaves have been contacted for comment.